Joan Fontaine: The Oscar-Winning Star and Her Notorious Sister Act

The Oscar-winning star, and half of Hollywood's most famous sister feud, leads a parade of celebrities who have died near Christmas

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Celebrity deaths can come in dribbles or deluges. Around Christmas it can get downright blizzardy for Deceased Artists — the phrase that Media Funhouse’s Ed Grant applies to the late great. Among the lights that failed on previous Dec. 25ths: Charles Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Dean Martin, James Brown and Ann (Detour) Savage. And on Christmas Eve: actors Jack Klugman and Charles Durning (both last year), Peter Lawford, Rossano Brazzi and Toshiro Mifune; playwrights John Osborne and Harold Pinter; composer Bernard Herrmann.

For millions of children, Christmas morning is a time for seeing what Santa brought them. For me, as TIME’s self-designated obituarian, it’s checking for any famous figures who have, to invoke the Monty Python Parrot sketch, “kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, rung down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible.” So far, it’s been a quiet Christmas, but stay tuned. Zsa Zsa Gabor could go any year now.

Entertainers never seize our retrospective emotions so firmly as when they have just died; the chorus of their greatest praise comes when they can no longer hear it. In this year’s weeks before Christmas, I bid adieu to classy actress Eleanor Parker, to Peter O’Toole, ever glamorous as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and to Al Goldstein, old-school pornographer and pioneer cable-TV host. But others deserved elegies. Tom Laughlin, dead at 82, starred in Robert Altman’s first film, The Delinquents (1957), and created the mythic Native American Vietnam vet Billy Jack — a left-wing, do-gooder Rambo — in four movies he wrote, directed, starred in and, in some cases, distributed. Laughlin, who also ran for U.S. president three times, leaves behind his co-star Delores Taylor, his wife of 59 years.

Ray Price, the country singer who brought country music out of Appalachia by adding strings, died at 87 this week. Straddling several generations — he filled in for Hank Williams at a performance on New Year’s Day 1954 after the country legend had died, at 30, early that morning — Price hired future Country Hall of Famers to play in his band (Willie Nelson, Roger Miller) and other to write songs for him (Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times”). He was not just the bridge from raw country to pop country; he was the whole, long highway.

I should have found time to write about Richard Heffner, 89, the public intellectual who began his half-century talk show, The Open Mind, in 1956; edited A Documentary History of the United States and co-authored the interview book Conversations With Elie Wiesel; was the first general manager of New York City’s WNET, the station that kickstarted PBS; and for 20 contentious years (1974-94) chaired the movie studios’ ratings board. I was sorry to learn of the deaths of Lord Infamous (Rocky Dunigan), the Mephis rapper of the group Three 6 Mafia, at 40 after a heart attack; of the young-adult author Ned Vizzini (Kind of a Funny Story), by his own hand at 32; and of Seattle film critic Jeff Shannon, who battled quadruplegia all his adult life and finally succumbed at 54.

And Joan Fontaine, the Hollywood star who died Dec. 15 at 96 at her Carmel, Cal., home. Like O’Toole, she burst into fame in a great director’s movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Fontaine’s vehicle was Rebecca, the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film about a nameless young woman recently married to a domineering gentleman (Laurence Olivier) who cannot forget his first wife: Rebecca, the unseen force that haunts her widower and his fragile new wife. Fontaine played virtually the same role the following year as Cary Grant’s wife in Hitchcock’s Suspicion, and this time she won the Oscar as Best Actress. She was just 24.

Fontaine occasionally played schemers: the Victorian belle who cheats on both her husband and her lover with a wealthy older man, and throws poison into the stew, in the 1947 Ivy; and the breaker of finer hearts in Nicholas Ray’s 1950 Born to Be Bad. But her specialty was playing the gracious soul, quiet and querulous, unsure of her allure. Her small, sad smile and delicate gestures made her ideal for romantic heroines slow to realize their own strength. Opposite Orson Welles in Jane Eyre and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman, she created indelible portraits of shy girls who summon the resources to match the whims of imperious men.

Born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Tokyo, Fontaine grew up in the shadow of her older sister Olivia de Havilland, herself a two-time Oscar winner for To Each His Own in 1947 and The Heiress in 1950. Olivia had more Oscars, but Joan got hers first. It was part of their lifelong rivalry — Hollywood’s most notorious sister feud. Legend has it they had not spoken in perhaps 60 years. Maybe the legend was true.

Their mother Lillian had been a scholarship student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and assistant to the legendary actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree. As Lillian Fontaine she graced a half-dozen films in the mid-’40s, including Joan’s Ivy (where she enters in the seventh minute). The girls’ father, Walter de Havilland, taught law at Waseda University in Tokyo and, according to many accounts, couldn’t keep his hands off women. He patronized Tokyo’s red light district took the family housemaid as a mistress — in the family house. That outrage spurred Lillian to demand a divorce and move her daughters to San Jose, Cal., in 1920. They took up residence at the Vendome Hotel, where the bilingual girls chatted in “babyish Japanese.” Lillian married Gorge Fontaine, manager of a department store.

Fontaine was even less fit a husband and father than de Havilland had been. Joan, who at the age of three scored 160 on an IQ test, “was commonly seen sitting in a graveyard,” Higham writes, “leaning against a tombstone and reading romantic verse.” Fontaine used this moony solemnity against her: “When Joan started biting her nails, he dug a grave in the garden and showed it to her; as she screamed with fear, he told her he would throw her into it if she continued.” Their stepfather also “showed a perverted streak… interfering with their genitals in the bathtub…” Answering her father’s call, Joan returned to Tokyo, where Walter had married the housemaid. “He often let his incestuous feelings for Joan be known,” Higham writes. “On one occasion, when his wife was sick, he even suggested that Joan go to bed with him.” Joan demanded to be sent back to California; in return, Walter cut off her and Olivia’s allowance.

Olivia had luck to match her acting gift and her beauty — dark to Joan’s blond. As a teenager she replaced Gloria Stuart as Hernia in Max Reinhardt’s Los Angeles production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and played the same role when Warner Bros. filmed it. In her next film, Captain Blood, she starring with Warners’ dashing Tasmanian devil Errol Flynn. Joan’s job was driving Olivia to the studio. Fontaine claims she recommended de Havilland for the role of Melanie in Gone with the Wind. Never appearing together in a film, they were famously ferocious competitors. In 1947, when Olivia won her first Oscar, Joan was backstage. She extended her hand in congratulations; Olivia turned away.

Shortly before her death, Fontaine told Scott Feinstein of The Hollywood Reporter that the feud has little basis in reality, that the sisters visited each other at their respective homes in Manhattan and Paris. Yet in a 1978 People interview, when asked how she would like to die, she answered: “At age 108, flying around the stage in Peter Pan, as a result of my sister cutting the wires. Olivia has always said I was first at everything – I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die, she’ll be furious, because again I’ll have got there first!”

Joan got their first. Now Olivia, apparently going strong at 97, can enjoy life until she follows her sister — some time near Christmas.

The rest of you: stay alive this holiday season and through a bright 2014.